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Reflections on Sunday morning as two black churches ponder their future

By Maria Saporta

Two black Baptist churches face each other across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive — symbolizing a great divide mixed with a great opportunity — not only for themselves but for the community at large.

Both churches are in the middle of one of the biggest stories of the year — the proposed $1 billion retractable roof Atlanta Falcons football stadium

It’s Sunday morning at 10 a.m. as members of Friendship Baptist Church gather for Communion Sunday.  The theme on the church bulletin states: “Remembering our heritage; Embracing our future: (John 3:1-8; Revelation 21:1-7).

Friendship Baptist Church

Friendship Baptist Church

The congregation includes respected Atlanta leaders — many of whom have a multi-generational history with Friendship — a church that was established in 1862 and organized in 1866.

A well-dressed choir sings beautifully accompanied by the church’s organist — Kenneth Wynn.

Across the street, Mount Vernon Baptist Church begins its worship service at 10:30 a.m. The tone and atmosphere in the church is markedly differently from Friendship.

The church is filled with a beat of drummer with a full drum set and a gospel choir that has members of its congregation standing and clapping and at times holding their hands up in the air to welcome the Lord.

At first, it feels as though the membership is sparse, but as the service continues, more members — many accompanied with their children — straggle in.

The church bulletin has a more provocative message: “Taking Care of Kingdom Business.”

Just this week, it was disclosed that Mount Vernon was asking the Georgia World Congress Center Authority $20.375 million for its property by the GWCCA had given Mount Vernon its “best and final offer” of $6.2 million. The $14 million gap with Mount Vernon was seen as a key reason as to why the Atlanta Falcons and GWCCA announced their intention to go to a less-desirable site a half-mile away.

So going to both churches on Sunday provided an opportunity to get an insider’s view of the mood within each one.

About a half-hour into the service at Friendship, Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, gave the congregation an update on the negotiations with the city and the Falcons.

Plaque in front of Friendship Baptist Church

Plaque in front of Friendship Baptist Church

Hawk said the situation has been changing daily and that the church had finally received an official offer from the city and the Falcons. It was not close enough to make a deal, but it was close enough to continue negotiations.

“On Thursday, the GWCC announced they had broken off negotiations with Mount Vernon,” Hawk said. “We were quickly informed that they would like to continue negotiations with us.”

Hawk then went on to say that the last offer the city made was unacceptable because it would not permit Friendship to live up to its mission of serving the needs of the church as well as the broader community.

“Once we have received what we believe is the best and final offer, we ill bring that back to the congregation,” Hawk said.

At Mount Vernon, the tone was quite different.

Towards the beginning of the service, one of the ministers informed the congregation that on Tuesday, Aug. 13, there will be a “Special Call Church Family Meeting” at 6:30 p.m.” to provide an update on discussions with the Georgia World Congress Center. The meeting was being held to dispel rumors that were being told about the church, the minister said.

Another deduction is that the talks between Mount Vernon and GWCCA may not be completely dead — otherwise, why would the congregation need to hold a specially-called family meeting?

But the sermon by Rev. R.K. Turner certainly left a different impression.

In a passionate, poetic sermon, Turner weaved in religious verses with football analogies mixed in with the Falcons’ motto of “Rise Up” with the line “I believe I can fly” — all urging the church to not give up.

The verses were about an everlasting God giving power to the faint. “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary and they walk, and not faint.”

Mount Vernon Baptist Church with Georgia Dome in background (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Mount Vernon Baptist Church with Georgia Dome in background (Photos by Maria Saporta)

At times it was hard to tell if Rev. Turner was talking about the church’s negotiations with GWCCA or the plight of the poor in the African American community.

“Just hold your position. Don’t panic. Don’t develop a loser’s mentality,” Turner said. “God will give power to the people who have no money. When you’ve just about exhausted all you have got, God gave you a second wind.”

Later, there was no question about who he was talking about.

“God is going to give you what you need to rise above your suffering,” Turner said. “You can’t let the enemy dictate your steps. Steps are ordered by God…. God is in control. Neither do you have to yield to the force of evil.”

Turner also acknowledged that he had gotten some heat because of the church’s position.

“I got a phone call. A man asked: ‘What’s wrong with y’all.’ I said: ‘What?’ Who are y’all?’” Turner said, later quoting City Councilman Ivory Young who said that because Mount Vernon did not dance to the beat to somebody else’s drum, it was going to hurt the city. “’What’s wrong with y’all? What’s wrong with that black church down there? Why won’t they deal with those folks?’”

Then Turner reminded the congregation that Mount Vernon isn’t the only church with an important history, and its legacy also has value.

“This is holy ground,” Turner said. “If you trust God enough, God will do what he says he will do… He will make a way out of no way….
“I believe I can fly. Believe in the power of God that I can Rise Up, that I can fly, lift me in all my troubles,” Turner added. “Don’t you worry. Don’t you get nervous. Folks don’t care anything about this church. All they want is a story. They don’t care about this church.”

That was Sunday morning on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Northside Drive. Two churches. Two negotiations. Two approaches. Two styles. Two different messages.

The question continues to be whether there will be a split decision and a failed transaction leading to the wrong site being chosen.

Or will the two churches be able to find peace — in their own separate ways — with the opportunities that sit at their doorsteps and with the opportunities that will best for the surrounding communities and for Atlanta as a whole.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. moliere August 5, 2013 10:14 am

    This is silly. Why have a “final deadline” when everyone knows that the deadline is not final? This is a good reason why no one respects city government. Of course, moving forward is a lot easier because it appears that moving north will incur legal opposition from the homeowners associations up there. The homeowners’ associations would ultimately lose, but they could tie up the process in court for years. Might be time to admit that the churches have the city and GWCCA over a barrel and pay them. It stinks, but this project is too important to allow it to relocate to Gwinnett County.Report

    1. Burroughston Broch August 5, 2013 11:51 am

      It’s part of what the Mayor hopes is a well-orchestrated dance in which he becomes the hero by convincing the churches to sell. As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
      Hizzoner seems hopeful to parlay the churches, the new stadium, and the demise of Morris Brown College into an urban renewal plan, with his name attached to everything.Report

    2. Burroughston Broch August 6, 2013 1:01 pm

      As just reported in the AJC:
      “City officials have reached a $19.5 million deal with Friendship Baptist Church, one of two churches key to the http://www.ajc.com/s/new-falcons-stadium/ being built on the preferred “south site,” Mayor Kasim Reed said Tuesday.”
      Hizzoner is in the telephone booth now, changing into his Superman garb.Report

  2. SpaceyG August 6, 2013 9:48 am

    Because “the media” love to read clichés off of press releases such as “final deadline.” It’s easy. Easy in the same way people love to hear greasy preachers tell ’em that loving God will make them rich. Quick!Report

  3. JC101 August 8, 2013 11:03 am

    Under no circumstances should a new stadium be built without direct access to a MARTA station.  Really are you kidding me?  They would actually consider doing that?Report

  4. ScottNAtlanta August 8, 2013 2:09 pm

    They are by no means over a barrel (the city).  They could just as easily condemn the property under eminent domain and be done with it, giving both churches fair market value.  That the churches are grandstanding for more money after several more than generous offers is not going to be a winner for them.  If the stadium is built on the northside location, then people will blame them for all ills that site brings.  Its also going to be a bigger headache for the Churches as well to exist there dues to all the traffic (no marta) and construction.  They will also get no favors from the city for parking that I’m guessing they might need.  It also throws out the window all the plans drawn up so far for the surrounding areas (since these areas will change…as well as plans for the upgrades on Northside Dr that are being contemplatedReport

    1. James Braque August 12, 2013 2:12 pm

      Eminent Domain is impractical and illegal. The Churches are restricted because they have to receive enough money to construct new churches with the cost for construction alone is over 10 million. FurtherMt. Vernon was appraised over 20 years ago before the Dome was built and then the value was 2 million more than it is now.
      If someone tried to buy your property would the purchaser determine the value, would someone who has no equity interest decide your fate. Eminent Domain by the city removed dozens of minority business a few blocks awayReport

      1. ScottNAtlanta August 12, 2013 3:45 pm

        @James Braque  I’m not saying it is the best method, but it is 100% certainly legal (you even say so in the last sentence of your comment).  Last I looked, in the last several years property values have plummeted in that area, so an appraisal from 20 years ago hardly can be used to justify anything currentlyReport

  5. Wish for MIlton County August 12, 2013 11:44 am

    Auther Blank and the Falcons move to start looking at the north site is the oldest trick in negotiations. The churches think they have everyone over a barrel.  Mr. Blank just told them he has alternatives.
    Mayor Reed just spent $19 million dollars of someone elses money (about $5 million which is extrotion money) to get one church to move out of the way.
    Now lets see how much extrotion money will be used to get the 2nd church to move.  Right now the offer is $6.2 million.  I say the final is about $12 million (another $5 million in extortion money).
    So if this is true, GOOD FOR THE CHURCHES!!!  They have a collective $10 million over the fair market value of their property. LET”S SEE WHAT THEY DO WITH THE MONEY!!!  It is all about the nieghborhood, right!!!!
    Oh and all you Falcon fans – your ticket prices just jumped another $10 per ticket, for forever, to pay for the extortion.  
    Historical fact – Look at what the Braves did after they got the Ted.  How many seaso ticket holders who had good seats were put back in outfield, proced out of their seats, etc….  And the Braves only spent about $50 million (1996 dollars) to change the Olympic stadium into a ball park.Report

    1. James Braque August 12, 2013 2:04 pm

      Milton, these Churches never offered their property for sale, they were approached to sell. The extortion or bullying comes from begging to purchase, then using simpleton’s telling the seller they should accept any offer because someone wants what you own, but wants to tell them what it’s worth. Paying 40million for the Church won’t affect ticket cost as much as 60 million to improve the North site or the 110 million to Matt Ryan. Truthfully your gripes about seating selection is covered by your licensing fee with should be equilivent to pay for 4years of tickets for the opportunity to have a season ticket.
      Finally Friendship was offer 20 million, they are not the most important property, also Mt. Vernon was assessed a higher property value for tax records. Mt. Vernon would be more than foolish to consider an insulting offer of more than 17 million less.Report


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